At midnight this morning (July 11th), the NBA “dead period” ended and all of the rumored/confirmed trades and signings from the last 10 days can become official. In the midst of that, and on the heels of the news of the new multi-year deal that the Hawks have agreed to with guard Lou Williams, we are going to take a look at the roster, and examine how the new depth chart can/will shake out.
First off, let’s go down the list by position:
- PG – Jeff Teague, Devin Harris
- SG – Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow, John Jenkins, Deshawn Stevenson
- SF – (empty)
- PF – Josh Smith, Mike Scott, Jordan Williams, Ivan Johnson (?)
- C – Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, Johan Petro
At first glance, you’ll notice the glaring emptiness at the small forward position. I’ve chosen to list each player by what I consider their best or “natural” position, and there isn’t a single player on the current assumed roster that falls under small forward by that definition. We’ll come back to this.
At point guard, depth is certainly not an issue anymore. Jeff Teague is the incumbent and he’s coming off a season where, at 23 years old, he averaged 13 points and 5 assists a game in 33 minutes while putting up a slightly better than league-average 15.83 PER (player efficiency rating). In an amusing turn of events, the player that is directly next to Jeff Teague in the point guard PER rankings is the newly-acquired Devin Harris. Harris posted a 16.08 PER rating while scoring 11 points and dishing out 5 assists per game in 27 minutes a game with Utah. Harris has never posted a season that is considered below-average in his entire career, and has a long track record of steady play that includes a peak season where he averaged 21 points and 7 assists in New Jersey. Anyone, short of Larry Drew, trying to speculate on the playing time distribution would be grasping at straws, but with 2 average-or-better options, it’s a nice problem. Also, Harris has very nice size for a point guard (6’3-6’4) so the two could potentially see time together in small lineups.
At the shooting guard spot, there is a bit of a logjam all of the sudden. With the trade of Joe Johnson, incumbent status isn’t awarded to anyone, but there are still some priority guys. The newly-signed Lou Williams isn’t a traditional shooting guard, although he’s certainly the best player of the bunch. At 6’1, 175 lbs, he’s very slight for a shooting guard, but his primary talent is scoring, and Williams certainly isn’t a point guard. He’d be best utilized in the role that he excelled at in Philadelphia, as a combo guard off-the-bench who is your 6th man (he was 2nd in the league’s 6th man award voting) and provides scoring spark. Williams posted a 20.2 PER last season which was good for 9th among point guards, and 5th among shooting guards and averaged 15 points a game in just 26 minutes. In short, he’s a good NBA player if deployed correctly, and if the money (not yet disclosed) on his multi-year contract is reasonable, I absolutely love the acquisition. Following Williams are the more “traditional” shooting guards led by Anthony Morrow. Morrow is the best piece (other than cap relief, of course) acquired in the Joe Johnson trade. Morrow is a very effective offensive player because he’s one of the best shooters in the entire league, with extended range and the length to get his shot off. On the defensive side, he’s certainly below-average (being kind), and he’s a limited player when he’s not shooting his jumper. He’s not an ideal fit as a starting 2-guard, but he’s certainly a rotation guy. John Jenkins is the rookie 1st-rounder with a remarkably similar profile to that of Morrow. He’s an elite shooter who doesn’t do anything else particularly well, and will likely be an adventure on the defensive end. Obviously, we don’t have the body of work to examine with Jenkins, but it’s reasonable to assume that his one elite skill should be enough to make a reasonably effective player at some point. And then there’s Deshawn Stevenson. In short, he was one of the worst players in the NBA last year, sporting a hilariously bad 4.33 PER rating in limited time with New Jersey. One thing that Stevenson has going for him is that he’s easily the best wing defender on the roster at the moment (a low bar, but still), and that we actually know what he is. Ideally, he wouldn’t play a lot, if at all, but with guys like Lebron and Wade in the conference (and division), Stevenson could be a nice wrinkle defensively. I’m trying here.
Here we are at small forward. As mentioned above, there are no “true” small forwards on the roster so Larry Drew will have a challenge. I suspect that we’ll see a lot of Josh Smith (we’ll get there) at the 3-spot including a possibility of him starting there. In addition, Stevenson has the size to play the 3 spot and Morrow could play there despite being a train wreck defensively. There are no ideal options, and because of that, we may have the Josh Smith/Small Forward show!
Speaking of Josh Smith, he returns as the incumbent starter at the power forward spot. We’ve been over the Smith saga before, so I’ll leave my overarching opinions out of this and focus on his positional flexibility. Smith is a very, very good player at power forward who is a worse player at the 3-spot. I find this to be undeniable, but many will tell you that Smith has always been a small forward playing out of position. In 2011-12, none of the top 20 lineups that the Hawks used in efficiency had Smith playing the 3 spot. Admittedly, the Hawks roster was depleted by the loss of Horford so Smith didn’t play nearly as much small forward, but the trend holds true in previous seasons. In 2010-11, exactly one of the top 10 5-man units had Smith playing the 3, and none of the top-15 units in 2009-10 had Smith at the small forward spot. Smith’s defensive value comes mostly from help-side rim protection, and while he’s an elite athlete, his one-on-one defense, especially against smaller, quicker forwards, isn’t exactly elite. Smith can be and likely would be, a pretty good player at the small forward spot, but he’s much better at the 4 and I’d love to see him play there almost exclusively. After Smith, Jordan Williams and Mike Scott are currently the only sure things at power forward. Williams was sparsely utilized as a rookie in New Jersey, and it’s tough to get a great read on him. His athleticism lacks just enough where you wouldn’t love him as a pure power forward, but his size doesn’t scream “center” either. He’s got great touch around the rim, and can score on the box, but defensively, he’s had issues, and his athleticism really limits him. I absolutely loved Mike Scott at Virginia because he was one of the most efficient players in the country. He’s a bit of a tweaner, and I’m not sure he can guard effectively at the next level either. Ivan Johnson would certainly be the best option as the backup power forward from day one, but he has yet to be signed. The Hawks issued him a qualifying offer that made him a restricted free agent, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a different team could blow the Hawks out of the water with a multi-year deal for Johnson. Stay tuned.
At center, Al Horford is back! In his last full season, the only 3 “centers” that posted better PER rates than Al Horford were Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and Tim Duncan. That’s the list. Al Horford is the best player on the team, he’s on a team-friendly contract, and that’s all you need to know about Al in this space. It’s conceivable that he’d slide to the 4-spot with Smith going to the 3, but that’s the only potential adjustment to Horford’s status as a 35-minute-a-night center. Behind him, Zaza Pachulia returns for year number eight with the Hawks. First of all, I can’t believe it’s been that long, but secondly, Pachulia is a valuable asset as he enters the final year of his contract. He’s posted basically league-average efficiency numbers with solid rebound rates for the entirety of his Hawks career, and as a backup big in today’s NBA, that’s gold. On the current roster, Pachulia probably ranks 6th or 7th in terms of “most valuable”, and he’s an asset. Johan Petro is the final piece of the Nets/Johnson trade, and it’s mostly underwhelming. His career PER is around 10, which is significantly below-average, and he’s a flat-out bad offensive player. He’s a pretty good athlete for his size, but he fouls at an alarming rate, and that has been the cause of some of his issues defensively. As a 3rd, emergency big, the Hawks could do worse, but at no point do we want to see Petro in an extended role.
Now that we’ve taken a look at each of the positional groups, the big question is how to deploy them. The current roster is certainly not set in stone, and with only 13 players under contract (including Ivan Johnson) in theory, there’s room for maneuvering. With that said, let’s examine the overall roster make-up a bit:
- Best 5-man unit – Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow, Josh Smith, Al Horford – This is sure to spark some debate, namely because Anthony Morrow isn’t a better basketball player than Zaza Pachulia. This all comes down to my thinking that Smith is a much better player at the 4 than the 3, and that more than covers up for the difference between Zaza and Morrow. Defense on the wing would be the biggest issue here, but Williams is the best guard on the roster from the moment he signed, and pairing him with the bigger, more physical Harris is the best bet.
- Most likely 5-man starting unit (Larry Drew!) – Jeff Teague, Anthony Morrow, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia – The Teague/Harris debate will likely rage on for a while because they are very similar players in terms of overall efficiency. Drew will likely be loyal to the incumbent, and that’s fine. The main issue with this lineup would be the lack of depth behind Zaza/Al up front and Smith at the 3.
With those out of the way, here is the way I’d like to see the rotation shake out from Game 1 (assuming health, and Ivan Johnson signing):
- Guards – Harris, Teague, Williams
- Swingmen – Morrow, Jenkins
- Forwards – Smith, I. Johnson (or Mike Scott without Ivan)
- Bigs – Horford, Pachulia
That’s your “rotation” of nine guys. If I were to give you a 10th (and Drew will likely play 10), I would say that Stevenson would be the most valuable because of his potential defensive impact, and the gaping hole on the wing.
Does that mean that those 10 guys will make up the rotation? Absolutely not. Between coaching decisions, roster turnover, and the remaining empty spots on the roster, things could change, but as of the morning of July 11th, this is your roster.
Before the signing of Lou Williams, I firmly believe that this was a fringe playoff team, at best, and despite the fact that I really like the move, I’m not sure it does anything to change that. Because of the way that the back-court is constructed with the best 3 guards being scoring-first guards that are 6’3-and-under and the fact that there isn’t a small forward to speak of, the ceiling is pretty limited for this season. We must remember that this rebuild process was not targeting this season, and that after this year, the only guys under contract are Al Horford, Jeff Teague (qualifying offer), Lou Williams, and John Jenkins. That is the list.
In the meantime, this is a pretty fascinating roster, and with entertaining guys like Williams and Smith (when he’s not chucking jumpers), combing with a reliable stud like Al Horford, it’ll be fun to watch.